German wine is typically associated with Riesling, the nation’s most heralded and widely planted grape. Yet, beyond Riesling’s bright glare, Germany boasts a diversity of intriguing white wines.
In Rheinhessen, varieties like Silvaner, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grow alongside Riesling. In Franken, Silvaner reigns supreme, while in Baden, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are dominant. Additionally, developments in cross-breeding have introduced varieties like Scheurebe, Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus.
“It’s a part of our tradition to also grow Silvaner and the Burgundy varieties [Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris],” says Philipp Wittmann, one of Rheinhessen’s finest Riesling producers. He says that while many examples can be found around the globe, a unique character lies in the “fruitiness and elegance of our German style. Grown in Germany, the wines are typically lower in alcohol.”
Katharina Wechsler, one of Rheinhessen’s new generation of winemakers, grows Silvaner, Scheurebe and a few other white varieties in addition to Riesling.
“I am deeply in love with Riesling,” she says. “Nevertheless, I am closely connected to my origin, Rheinhessen, and the varieties that express and fit our soil type and climates. These varieties have a long history in this region, and it is a great feeling to interpret their stories my own way.”
With history, tradition and a wealth of world-class producers that make unique, site-expressive bottlings, it’s time to consider Germany’s “other” white wines.
Grauburgunder, or the “Grey Burgundian,” may not sound familiar, but it’s an alias for the trusty standby known as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio. A pale-skinned mutation of Pinot Noir, the grape originated in Burgundy and was planted widely in the north of France. Historians believe the variety was most likely introduced to Germany by Cistercian monks via Alsace, the French wine region opposite Pfalz and Baden across the Rhine River.
Unlike other global examples that might contain some residual sugar, Grauburgunder is typically dry. Off-dry or sweet versions, often more floral in perfume, can be labeled as Ruländer. Grauburgunder has a fuller body than Pinot Grigio, with bold pear and citrus flavors, exotic spice and a hint of bitterness.
In the loess and shell-limestone soils of the Pfalz, Winemaker Hansjörg Rebholz, of Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz, produces luminous, fruity Grauburgunder that bursts with notes of stone fruit, hay and almond.
Plantings of Grauburgunder at the organically farmed estate are less than its Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, but they hold historic significance for both Rebholz and the region itself.
Marc Weinreich, an organic winemaker in Rheinhessen, says the region’s cool, dry and sunny climate produces Grauburgunder with “depth, smoothness and minerality” in addition to a “balance between ripe and creamy notes as well as acidic structure.”
Since taking over his family’s winery in 2009, he has added plantings of the Pinot varieties as well as Chardonnay. While Riesling is produced at various quality levels, its sales are outnumbered by the sum of Weinreich’s other white wines.
Farther south, in Baden, the region’s most iconic bottlings, like those from Weingut Salwey, Weinhaus Dr. Heger or Weingut Franz Keller, are often sourced from old vines planted on the volcanic slopes of the Kaiserstuhl district.
Unlike easy-drinking, fresh-fruited styles that are vinified in stainless steel, premium Baden Grauburgunder is frequently fermented and matured in wooden barrels. Often identifiable by their Grosses Gewächs (great growth, or GG), Grosse Lage (grand cru) or Erste Lage (premier cru) classifications, they boast firmness, textural richness and smokiness that make the wines exceptionally ageworthy.
Salwey 2014 Eichberg GG Pinot Gris (Baden); $59, 94 points. Lavish layers of vanilla, spice and cashew are exceptionally integrated in this medium-bodied but textural wine. Fresh pear and grapefruit flavors are concentrated but crisp, accented by complex notes of earth and crushed mineral, well as a delicate phenolic grip on the finish. It drinks well now but should improve through 2024, hold further. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Friedrich Becker 2016 Kalkmergel Grauer Burgunder (Pfalz); $40, 93 points. With its pale orange-pink hue and delicately tannic fringe, there’s a firmness of structure in this full-bodied wine, that the producer attributes to old vines. The palate is exotic and complex, melding flavors of ripe pear with hints of raspberry, forest floor and spice. Dry and intently mineral, it’s a fascinating wine to enjoy now through 2030. Rudi Wiest Selections.
Thörle 2016 Grauburgunder Trocken (Rheinhessen); $22, 91 points. Fresh citrus and pear flavors are highlighted by racy streaks of lime and tart pineapple in this unusually zippy Grauburgunder, or Pinot Gris. It’s light in body yet creamy in texture with a long, lingering finish marked by crushed stones and salty minerality. Ingenium Wines.
Villa Wolf 2016 Pinot Gris (Pfalz); $12, 90 points. Gorgeously peachy from nose to finish, this vibrant, fruity Pinot Gris offers wide appeal along with a gentle price tag. Dry on the palate and refreshingly zesty, it’s an elegantly balanced sip. A touch of stony minerality lends complexity to the finish. Drink now through 2019. Loosen Bros. USA. Best Buy.
A white mutation of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc originated in Burgundy, though plantings are far more widespread throughout Alsace and, to a lesser extent, in Champagne and northeast Italy. Around the world, the grape is often vinified identically to Chardonnay, and it’s even used as a stand-in when Chardonnay is scarce.
In Germany, Pinot Blanc has developed a reputation of its own. Known regionally as Weissburgunder, or the “White Burgundian,” it’s a historic grape with a strong foothold in Baden and the Pfalz. Increasingly, it’s embraced as a variety that reflects distinctions of German terroir.
“Chardonnay is forgiving with regards to terroir, but Pinot Blanc is not,” says Rudi Wiest, a veteran German wine importer. He says that Chardonnay can be grown almost anywhere and vinified to reflect any taste, while Pinot Blanc is more nuanced in its expression of origin.
“[Weissburgunder is] the Burgundy variety best adapted to our cool climate, one that reflects the expression of terroir and the fingerprint of our sites very well,” says Wittmann.
Light-footed, mineral Weissburgunder sourced from steep, slate slopes of the Mosel could not be more different from the pristine, fragrant expressions of the grape in Rheinhessen, or the bold, muscular wines of Baden.
Rebholz is a master of Pinot Blanc in the Pfalz. Despite being Germany’s foremost producer of Chardonnay, he treats Pinot Blanc with reverence, and grows it on prized limestone vineyards that highlight the grape’s subtle features.
In classic Burgundian style, Rebholz ferments and matures Chardonnay in small French barriques, but he maintains the fruit purity of Pinot Blanc. He vinifies even his premium bottlings in stainless steel.
“Pinot Blanc has a lot of natural structure, but you lose the influence of acidity and minerality with Pinot Blanc in oak,” says Rebholz. “You lose the freshness, the finesse.”
Ökonomierat Rebholz 2016 Im Sonnenschein GG Dry Weissburgunder (Pfalz); $100, 95 points. Weissburgunder, or Pinot Blanc, is often noted for its neutrality, but it is unctuously rich and textural in this wine, with invigorating strikes of white peach, lemon and lime. This is anything but neutral. Full-figured yet stately, it’s a lavish complex wine that lingers long on silken streaks of honey and waxy lemon peels. Enjoy now through 2031. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Schäfer-Fröhlich 2016 Weisser Burgunder Trocken (Nahe); $28, 93 points. While subdued on the nose, exuberant white-grapefruit and green-apple flavors penetrate through this dry full-bodied white wine. It’s a richly textured wine offset by zesty crushed mineral tones and vibrant lime acidity. The finish is long but crystalline. Enjoy now through 2021. Rudi Wiest Selections.
Rudolf Fürst 2016 Pur Mineral Weisser Burgunder (Franken); $40, 93 points. The name “Pur Mineral” is an apt descriptor for this intensely mineral wine full of dusty slate and river rock complexities. It’s luminously fruity too offering pristine Muscat grape and pear accented by a hint of exotic spice. It is dry in style yet rich and expansive in mouthfeel. Rudi Wiest Selections.
Pflüger 2016 Quarzit Pinot Blanc Trocken (Pfalz); $22, 90 points. Zippy and fresh, this dry, medium-bodied Weissburgunder, or Pinot Blanc, offers loads of pristine apple and tangerine-peel flavors. It’s concentrated yet sprightly in mouthfeel and finishes with lingering complexities of sea salt and smoky nuts. Drink now through 2022. Valckenberg International, Inc.
Silvaner is the comeback kid of Germany’s white wines. An ancient cross between lesser-known grapes Traminer (also known as Savagnin) and Österreichisch-Weiss, its cultivation here has been recorded since at least the 17th century.
When pushed to high yields, Silvaner is a formidable workhorse that was historically used in fruity, forgettable bulk wines. In its cool, continental heartland of Franconia, however, Silvaner was esteemed for its green-fruited, herbaceous attributes and opulent, textural palate.
In recent years, winemakers throughout Germany, but especially in Franken and Rheinhessen, have sparked a renaissance for the much-maligned grape.
At Weingut Rainer Sauer in Franken, 61% of the estate is planted with Silvaner. The winery’s top site, Escherndorf Am Lumpen, is a steep, south-facing “lump” of weathered shell-limestone acclaimed for creating muscular, concentrated wines, often with lingering earthy complexities.
Silvaner was once the dominant grape in Rheinhessen, but it waned, and plantings were ripped out as the region shifted toward premium wine production over the past few decades.
“When my father took over the winery in 1985, Silvaner covered nearly 50% of the vineyards,” says Sebastian Strub, a 12th generation winemaker in Rheinhessen. He says that his father focused on Riesling and, “after some years, Silvaner was totally erased in our portfolio.”
Strub fell in love with Franconian Silvaner while he studied at Geisenheim University, and he decided to revitalize the variety at his family winery. Rather than planting the typical Rheinhessen clones that he found uninteresting, Strub opted for rare 19th-century clones from Würzburg, in the heart of Franken. The gamble paid off—he says the vines thrived in the winery’s red sandstone and slate vineyards.
“It’s absolutely clear that Silvaner deserves its place among the best classic grape varieties in Germany,” says Strub. “It’s not just the clone that makes Silvaner unique. Silvaner reacts sensitively to the soil it is grown on and brings the minerality of the terroir into the wine. It’s necessary to grow Silvaner on extraordinary soil to make it unique.”
Rainer Sauer 2016 Escherndorfer Lump Erste Lage Silvaner Trocken (Franken); $70, 94 points. Blossomy and perfumed, this silky full-bodied Silvaner offers loads of fragrant melon, grapefruit and pear accented by a slick vein of honeycomb. It’s a mouthfilling creamy wine balanced by crisp acidity and a delicate hint of lime pith on the finish. Rudi Wiest Selections.
Schmitt’s Kinder 2016 Randersackerer Sonnenstuhl Erste Lage Silvaner Trocken (Franken); $33, 93 points. Tart tangerine acidity and a hit of white pepper lend zingy freshness to this elegant Silvaner. While dry in style with a rich mouth-filling texture, it’s also vibrantly citrusy and fruity with a long lean finish marked by lime and bitters. Rudi Wiest Selections.
Wittmann 2015 Silvaner Trocken (Rheinhessen); $22, 92 points. This elegant dry Silvaner showcases the grape’s characteristically brisk green plum and herb tones against a bounty of ripe white peach, melon and peach flavors. Hints of smoke and slate and a zesty backbone of acidity lend complexity and structure through a long, lingering finish. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.
Michael Fröhlich 2016 Escherndorfer Ortswein Silvaner (Franken); $23, 90 points. Lively lemon and tangerine acidity brighten this zingy dry Silvaner. It’s crisp and apple-driven on the palate, accented by hints of nut, fresh herb and chamomile. This is a light bodied but sleek wine with a lingering, satiny finish. Drink now through 2023. Winesellers Ltd.
Scheurebe isn’t what most would consider a shy variety, or a straightforward one. It often exhibits pronounced and layered characteristics, from intense, tropical lychee and passion fruit to black currant bush and mint, lime sorbet and feline essence. It’s sweet yet salty, brassy yet floral, and everything in between.
Compared to ancient, pedigreed grapes like Riesling or Silvaner, Scheurebe is a modern and ignoble grape developed in 1916 by German viticulturalist Dr. Georg Scheu in Rheinhessen. It’s a unique cross between Riesling and a wild vine called Bukettraube, an aromatic variety also known as the “bouquet grape.”
Scheurebe was first established in Rheinhessen, though it proliferated subsequently throughout the Pfalz, Nahe and Franken. While bred primarily for resistance to frost and iron deficiency, its ebullient, fruity flavors, bold perfume and pert, acidic backbone can yield dry, off-dry and dessert-style wines of surprising elegance and quirkiness.
The grape’s fresh-fruit characteristics and herbal, earthy inflections make it an easy alternative to the more common Sauvignon Blanc, as well as an ideal companion for vegetable-heavy dishes. In the best of hands, producers like Weingut Hans Wirsching and Weingut Schmitt’s Kinder in Franken, or Weingut Pfeffingen in the Pfalz, the variety can yield surprising complexity and ageworthiness.
“Scheurebe used to be a variety for cheap, sweet wines, easy to drink, but with no character,” says Wechsler. “Times have changed.”
Wechsler’s Scheurebe varies from new plantings to 45-year-old vines. She believes that when harvested from Rheinhessen’s limestone soils, and particularly chalk, Scheurebe takes on an effusive, pink-grapefruit expression.
Together with his brother Jan, Weinreich produces a second label of wines called Natürlich Weinreich. It’s an irreverent, experimental lineup inspired by natural wine pioneers in France, Italy and Spain. For Weinreich, grapes like Scheurebe and Bacchus—another German variety bred initially for productivity and cold heartiness—are compelling as local alternatives to international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc.
Pfeffingen 2016 Scheurebe Auslese (Pfalz); $36,/375 ml, 93 points. Light as a feather yet intensely penetrating, this medium-sweet wine is a laser-edged explosion of fresh white peach, pineapple, strawberry and lychee flavors. It’s lavishly fruity and floral, but nuanced by savory hints of saffron and caramelized sugar. Fresh, lemony acidity and a lingering honey tone lead the long, piercing finish. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Hans Wirsching 2015 Iphöfer Kronsberg Alte Reben Scheurebe (Franken); $40, 92 points. Lusciously fruity yet substantial and complex, this dry, full-bodied wine is plump in pineapple, grapefruit and yellow plum flavors. It’s tropical in tone yet stately, nuanced by fresh, leafy undertones and savory hints of cashew and smoke. Rich yet briskly balanced, it should evolve well through 2023. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Wechsler 2016 Scheurebe Trocken (Rheinhessen); $28, 91 points. Fresh white blossom and grapefruit perfume this light-bodied but deeply textural white wine. Dry in style, it’s a spry citrusy Scheurebe balanced by zesty notes of lime and gooseberry. The finish is long and intently mineral. Drink now through 2022. Valckenberg International Inc.
Kühling-Gillot 2016 Qvinterra Scheurebe Trocken (Rheinhessen); $24, 90 points. Buoyant aromas of pineapple, cantaloupe and tangerine abound in this intensely fruity but zesty dry white. Pristine white grapefruit and green plum flavors are offset by a backdrop of leafy green herb and a hint of smoky minerality on the finish. It’s a sprightly, light-bodied wine to enjoy now–2020. MS Walker.